John Edwards: The Right Economic Message for Dems
William Saletan of Slate late yesterday posted a piece that I totally agree with. Even if the Democrats don’t nominate John Edwards to a spot on their ticket, which is not in the offing at least yet, they should steal and run on his message. In fact, the easiest and most effective thing Wesley Clark could do on domestic issues would be to adopt Edwards’ message, which is a Clintonian one.
Edwards uses a bunch of themes: I’m one of you, I’m an optimist, I’ll spread opportunity, I’ll fight the powerful interests, etc. But the important theme, the one that really cuts, is about wealth vs. work. It’s a more sophisticated version of the class warfare message Al Gore used in 2000. Gore said he would fight the powerful because they were powerful. Edwards adds a moral dimension: The economy depends on virtue as well as money, and virtue lies in work. The reason to fight for the working class isn’t just that it has less money, but that it shows more virtue.
He recalled working in the mill and earning his way through college. He emphasized the morality of labor. “A job is about more than a paycheck; it is about dignity, responsibility, and self-respect,” he said. In addition to the work ethic, Edwards argued, capitalism depends on good faith: “Credibility is the currency of good people.” He pledged not just to fix the economy but to put “our economy back in line with our values.”
That’s the sunny side of moralizing the economy. The dark side is cracking down on cheaters. Edwards repeated twice that the promise of America is “a fair shake for all, a free ride for none.” He singled out “Halliburton and George W. Bush’s friends” as free-riders. “Instead of turning a blind eye to CEOs who give themselves massive raises while cutting jobs,” Edwards promised to “stand up for the people who do the work.” He proposed to punish the rich not for being rich but for treachery and freeloading. Like Bill Clinton, Edwards claimed to stand up for people who “play by the rules.” But unlike Clinton, he added an explicit pledge to stand up “against those who don’t.”
"President Bush has a war on work. You see it in everything he does. He wants to eliminate every penny of tax on wealth, and shift the whole burden to people who work for a living. So people won’t pay any taxes at all when they make money from selling stocks, when they get big dividends every year, or when they inherit a massive estate. … It’s wrong to tax millionaires less for playing the market than we tax soldiers for keeping America safe."
The reason this message cuts into Bush’s base of support is that socially conservative blue-collar workers don’t vote Republican out of libertarian principle. They don’t believe in the free market or in rewarding risk. They believe in the work ethic. George W. Bush wins their votes by equating the free market with the work ethic. Show them where the free market betrays the work ethic, and they’ll vote for the candidate of the work ethic against the candidate of the free market.
Edwards' message is a lethal one for the GOP, even if he may not be the messenger who carries it forward. But he will get a chance to stay in the race long enough to spread it amongst his competitors to see if they can assimilate this effective message into their own.
Anger has its place, but only so far. Voters want to know what your basic principles are, and Edwards has given the party an effective way to distinguish itself from the GOP. And who knows, he may gain traction with it and carry it forward. Although he will probably not be able to place in the top three in either Iowa or New Hampshire, he will do well I think in the South if he gets traction on this message, and if he lets the others engage in the bloodletting amongst themselves.
You know that Lieberman will continue to go after Dean, as will Gephardt. What is not known is whether Kerry will do the same, and what Clark's strategy will be. For Edwards, the smart play may be to let the others engage in the fistfight while he focuses on the southern states and under the radar with the morals/economic message against Bush.